5 Patriots who need to improve in second half

FOXBOROUGH, MA - AUGUST 31: New England Patriots corner back Stephon Gilmore (24) on the bench during an NFL preseason game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants on August 31, 2017 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Giants defeated the Patriots 40-38. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

While the New England Patriots enter their bye week atop the AFC East, they have been far from the dominant unit that generated preseason hype about going undefeated. Bill Belichick made a number of unusual offseason maneuvers, including shelling out $65 million for Stephon Gilmore, trading first- and third-round picks for Brandin Cooks and letting productive veterans like Martellus Bennett and Jabaal Sheard walk in free agency.

Midway through the season, it is fair to question whether Belichick made the right call on a number of these transactions. In light of the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, it is clear the Patriots’ prerogative is to upgrade the 2017 roster around the ageless Tom Brady in an effort to win back-to-back championships. However, a number of key veterans on the roster have underachieved thus far and need to step up in the second half. Let’s take a look at five Patriots who need to improve.

1. Stephon Gilmore, CB

If there is one player in desperate need of a second-half makeover, it is Gilmore. New England’s prized free-agent acquisition has looked anything like the player who made his first Pro Bowl just a year ago. Despite a tantalizing physical skill set, Gilmore’s inability to pick up the defensive system and communicate pre-snap led to a number of embarrassing coverage breakdowns in Weeks 1-4. While he did redeem himself with a solid showing against Mike Evans, Gilmore allowed 13 catches for 277 yards and two touchdowns while also drawing three penalties in his first five games as a Patriot.

To make matters worse, the inconsistent cornerback with a checkered injury history missed New England’s last three games with a concussion. Though New England managed to limit Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers with Johnson Bademosi in Gilmore’s spot, the Patriots are not paying for Gilmore to be on the sidelines. There is no doubt that Gilmore possesses the length, speed and ball skills to be a top corner, but he must stay healthy and prove he has the mental capacity to play up to his ability in Matt Patricia’s system. Luckily, New England’s second-half schedule features some friendly quarterback matchups. Can Gilmore rise to the challenge?

2. Nate Solder, LT

This offseason saw far less talented tackles like Matt Kalil ($25 million guaranteed) and Mike Remmers ($10.5 million guaranteed) get paid in free agency. So with Nate Solder in a contract year, it would make sense for New England’s blindside protector to put together a career year and set himself up for a major payday. Unfortunately, the 2011 first-round pick got off to a rocky start (to put it nicely) and has done little to prove himself worthy of a long-term deal in New England.

Limited by an undisclosed injury over the summer, Solder did not look 100 percent early in the season and his performance suffered. In eight games, the typically reliable tackle allowed four sacks, nine quarterback hits, four pressures and drew five penalties. The other four starting offensive linemen combined for just three flags. Solder’s son has had to undergo more chemotherapy treatment, so it is understandable if his focus has been away from the field. But if Brady is going to survive and lead the Patriots on a deep playoff run, he and the team need Solder to play up to his capabilities in the second half.

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

3. Marcus Cannon, RT 

Sticking with the offensive line, it has been a tough year for right tackle Marcus Cannon. An ankle injury has clearly caused him to take a step back after he turned in a breakout season in 2016. Rewarded with a five-year, $32.5 million extension that included $14.5 million guaranteed, Cannon was expected to be an anchor on the right side next to fellow emerging star Shaq Mason. Instead, he has struggled in pass protection, surrendering a team-worst 6.5 sacks in addition to three hits, four pressures and two holding calls.

Considering Cannon and Solder are the elder statesmen up front, their respective struggles have come as a surprise. The interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Mason has played excellent all season, but not that cannot make up for poor pass protection on the edges. Besides Chris Hogan, Cannon is the one Patriots player who should benefit the most from a week off to get healthy. If his ankle injury can heal up by the time New England travels to Denver, Cannon should get back to being the player who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top right tackle in 2016.

4. Alan Branch, DT 

Before he arrived in New England in 2014, Alan Branch had a reputation as a highly talented but problematic player. The former second-round pick never developed into a consistent force in Arizona, and he spent the next three years as a decent but rather nondescript player in Seattle and Buffalo. Then the light came on in New England, and Branch proved to be an integral member of the defensive tackle rotation in the team’s two recent Super Bowl wins.

In a somewhat surprising move, the Patriots retained Branch on a two-year, $8.45 million contract with $3 million guaranteed. After skipping OTAs, Branch did not look in shape and was a complete nonfactor early in the season. In fact, his play was so poor that the team made him a healthy scratch against Tampa Bay. Since then, he has worked his way back into the lineup with mixed results. In seven games, Branch has posted just three tackles and drawn just one flag—a far cry from the player who recorded 49 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three passes defended and a blocked kick in 16 regular-season games last year. With Dont’a Hightower out for the year and Malcom Brown banged up with an ankle injury, Branch needs to get back to his 2016 form in order to shore up a shaky run defense. If not, the Patriots could be in big trouble in the second half when they face strong offensive lines like Oakland and Pittsburgh.

5. Dwayne Allen, TE 

Pinpointing the final player on this list was a difficult task. On one hand, Malcolm Butler’s up-and-down season could have easily earned him a spot on this list. But given his playmaking ability and competitive fire, he is trending in the right direction. A case could also be made for Mike Gillislee, who has been underwhelming in his role as the team’s power back. At the end of the day, there is one candidate who secretly needs a strong second half to help the Patriots improve on offense: Dwayne Allen.

When New England traded a fourth-round pick to the Colts for Allen and a sixth-rounder, many viewed it as a strong move to help give Rob Gronkowski some help. So far the move has been a total bust. Allen has yet to catch a pass and has not contributed much as a blocker. Never a blue-chip talent, Allen is still a serviceable No. 2 tight end who had been productive as a starter in Indianapolis.

Besides taking a load off of Gronkowski, the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder needs to figure out a way to be a useful red-zone target. After scoring a touchdown on 64 percent of their red-zone drives in 2016, the Patriots rank 18th with a 50 percent mark through eight games. Allen has consistently ranked as one of the better red-zone targets in recent years, so he needs to earn Brady and the coaches’ trust in order to resurrect his season.